Fighting for his country
Growing up in Michigan the 1950s, Jim Mitchell of Gresham delighted in hearing the stories of his father's days in the U.S. Army during WWI. So much so, that when he was old enough he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps program in high school and college.
After completing his education, he enlisted in the Army and served during both the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
But like many soldiers of his generation, Mitchell's homecoming from Vietnam wasn't a hero's welcome. Alongside thousands of his comrades-in-arms, Mitchell was met with disrespect and a general lack of support.
"I felt like the country had really not supported the military and their veterans coming back," he said. "When I moved to Oregon I went to the state employment office. One of the people I met with said, 'Don't tell your employer you were in the military. We don't like the military in Oregon.' But I wouldn't want to paint Oregon with a brush of one person."
Regardless of how he was welcomed home, Mitchell says he enlisted to be of service to his country. It's that same desire to serve his community that has kept him at the Sandy Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 4273.
Though the 80-year-old veteran has resided in Gresham since the early 2000s, he is a member of the Sandy VFW because of the Post's notoriety for community service.
"Generally just being a good member of the community and helping veterans, I feel is a very worthwhile activity," Mitchell said. "They're one of the top posts in Oregon and active in the community. I thought, 'Here's a good opportunity to serve and help people in the community.' We do a lot with the school, which appealed to my teaching background."
Mitchell joins other post members to teach flag etiquette in elementary schools, and he helps coordinate the Patriot's Pen and Voice of Democracy essay contests for scholarships.
"We can't help everyone, but we can help some," he added.
Mitchell excelled in both his high school and college ROTC programs. After college, he was sent to Kansas to a school for armed officers at Fort Knox and then for airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
"I guess like most people, if you find something you excel at that's what you stick to," Mitchell said. "I felt like I could do a good job in the military."
During the Cold War, Mitchell was shipped to Germany with a tank unit where he served for three years. There he worked as an intelligence officer for combat communications.
"We kept track of Russian and East German units, and of course, they kept track of us," he said. "We were there right after the Berlin Wall went up. We were very much on a high state of readiness in Germany."
Mitchell returned to the states in 1965, but his time in his home country was short lived.
"Once I was back in the U.S., they got an alert to go to Vietnam," Mitchell said. "In Vietnam, it was very different. We were working with the South Vietnamese unit but there wasn't really any place we were safe."
Mitchell worked as a combat operations adviser in Vietnam, assisting South Vietnamese officers in the planning and orchestration of combat commands in the delta.
"We had two missions: keep Highway 4 open, (which was) the only paved road in the area, and to protect the rice crop," he said. "If we could deny them food, that could prevent their operations. I had a number of close calls like anyone in combat."
Mitchell noted that he was "concerned at all times about visibility and being a target." He was in multiple situations where his unit was abruptly under fire, whether in a building or once in a helicopter.
"We got hit, so the pilot said, 'We're going in,'" Mitchell recounted. "Fortunately, he was able to maneuver the helicopter, (and) fortunately we all made it out."
To compound the situation in Vietnam, Mitchell said that working with the South Vietnamese also meant relying heavily on a translator.
"It was difficult because any time we got into fire fights, I had to go through the interpreter to give directions," Mitchell said.
As the war in Vietnam raged on, Mitchell's appreciation for the military waned.
"After Vietnam I was so disgusted with the politicians trying to run the war," he said. "There were so many times when we were on the ground and we felt like we had our hands tied behind our backs. There were too many limitations for political reasons. I said if that's the way they're going to fight the war, I don't want to fight it anymore."
In 1967, Mitchell resigned from his post as a captain with a Bronze Star, Air Medal, Cross of Gallantry, airborne wings and a combat infantry badge and headed to Maryland.
Though he'd left his military career behind him, Mitchell was drawn to the Maryland National Guard in 1968. He led a supply unit in Baltimore, which often found itself trying to restore order in places where citizens were protesting political actions like the Vietnam War, troops in Cambodia and in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
"In Baltimore, there were huge riots, so all of the National Guard got alerted," he said. "It wasn't quite as bad as being in Vietnam, but it was dangerous."
Transitioning out of the military again, Mitchell earned his master's degree in business administration at Golden Gate University then took a job as an instructor at the university's business school, where he taught for 30 years before retiring.
"I couldn't do the military and teach, so I went with teaching," Mitchell said.
Though Mitchell left combat a bit disillusioned with the military, he said "It was a great education."
"It was educational particularly in leadership skills in a lot of different situations both in combat units and intelligence," he said. "If a person really thinks about what they're doing in the military, they can learn as much if not more than they would in four years of school. I think the military is a tremendous opportunity to serve the country but also a great education in understanding people and working effectively with people from all kinds of backgrounds. You encounter people of all colors, creeds, you name it. If everybody had that kind of outlook and experience, I think it would take care of a lot of the hatred and division in the country."
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)